Sex, politics, religion - and music


Jack Body

Massey University Composer Address 1999

I was born in a small New Zealand country town, the last of four children and the only son. My sisters were considerably older than me, and so I had a rather solitary childhood. I amused myself by making things. I always remember trying to keep out of my mother's way, because as soon as she saw me she'd find some useful household chore for me to do. Since my sisters had all had piano lessons I, too, wanted to learn. Although it was obvious I was never destined to become a concert pianist I was fascinated by music, not only as sound that could be played and listened to, but also by the notation, a kind of secret symbolic language. I remember the sense of wonder I felt when I was given my first volume of Beethoven sonatas, which contained a very romanticised portrait of the composer as a frontispiece. So this is what a composer looked like, wild haired and with a surly glare! I clutched the book close and stroked its cover. (Years later I had a student who told me that when he got hold of his first Beethoven score, he ate the pages. Although I didn't quite believe him, I understood his feeling! We had fallen in love with the idea of being a composer.)

I think I must have been a fairly characterless child, a seen-but-not-heard kind of child. I seldom argued, or spoke out, but I definitely had a stubborn streak. I always say, "Yes, Mum", and then go off and do whatever it was I had in mind. I was an individualist, but I also avoided confrontation. I can't see the rhyme or reason of astrology but the truth is I am a classic Libran. (Years later, when I went to live in Java for two years, I felt very at ease in this culture where one never expresses oneself directly or emphatically, and where raised voices and physical confrontation are considered demeaning.

In New Zealand emotional inhibition is a national malady. Men, particularly, are discouraged from giving expression to their emotions, except perhaps their feelings of violence and aggression, which is such an essential ingredient in the game of rugby. But tears? - these definitely had to be suppressed. I remember struggling to keep my weeping silent, as I sobbed myself to sleep during the first months at boarding school, the result of which I seem to have altogether lost the capacity to cry freely, without restraint.

In many ways I am grateful for having been sent to boarding school, for although the separation from the family fold seemed sudden and brutal at the time, it forced on me a sense of independence, something than many adolescents have a long struggle to achieve. I was alone. I had to "create myself". I was a very average sort of scholar, but my particular passions - painting and music - marked me as being "different" from my school mates. I was not inadequate in athletics, but I chose to specialise in gymnastics, which I could work at alone, by myself, in my own time. I had an intense hatred of the compulsory military training which we were subjected to once a week.

In my "passive resistance" to the pressures to conform that I sensed around me, I started to develop little excentricities. I would suddenly say things that had no connection to what was being discussed. I would impose a code of silence on myself for a day or two at a time. I don't believe I was ever victimised - on the contrary I achieved a certain notoriety that was in fact a little reassuring for my self-image as an individualist. I was given the nick-name "spaz", short for spastic. As the school years progressed I had greater freedom to develop my excentricities. I became a night owl. I loved to practice the organ at all hours, alone in the chapel with its enveloping darkness, or to paint at night in the art room, or even, as a house prefect, to sit in my study, through to the early hours mesmerised by the glowing coil of a heater, my mind in a stupor. I didn't understand what I was doing or why. With no access (probably fortunately) to alcohol or drugs I think I was trying, through sleep deprivation, to achieve a state of altered consciousness, a world of unfettered imagination. (I remember reading years later about an ancient Chinese artist who, having completed a large landscape painting, put down his brush and disappeared into his creation.) My cultivated excentricities were perhaps partly a result of my romantic notion of what it is to be an artist. But I think I was also driven by a genuine need to escape convention. I wrote a poem about it that was published in the school journal. No great literary masterpiece, but I find it an illuminating window back onto my adolescent self.

The Madman (1962)

O, what fools are these
to have their form of logic
Dictated to them by their predecessors!
Consider me,
a rational being
living in my self-created heaven
while these animals subsist
forever smothered by conformity.

Why do these idiots prattle "facts"?
Can man ever prove a truth,
disprove a dream?
Why then, in this damned world of lunatics
am I, sane, condemned, because I choose
to live as my divine perception rules,
because I choose
to live?

Who would stand to prove me wrong?
Civilisation, its culture and its ethics
have grown from seed, with
crooked, twisted branches,
palsied roots and poisoned berries -
Your life is illusionary,
Your knowledge fallacious,
Your world a misconception.
My world is a truth,
I live by my beliefs,
Besides -
Who would stand to proof me wrong?

This idea that the creative act took one beyond the irrational, beyond the known, the familiar, into a fantastic, sometimes dangerous territory, is something that has reappeared in several of my works over the years. The electronic piece Kryptophones (1973) was inspired by listening to a shortwave radio on a beach in Greece. Suddenly music and voices from all of Europe, Africa, the Middle East flooded in, the air was filled with a whirlwind of sound. I realised with a shock that I these sounds were around me constantly, but that, without the aid of a radio receiver, I could not hear them. But what if I could? Is this not so different from a schizophrenic condition, being able to hear voices that no-one else can hear? How could one communicate one's experience? One would be considered mentally ill, surely. And yet history is full of visionaries who heard secret voices - Joan of Arc, Jesus.... What is the difference between a prophet, a shaman, a fool, a madman?

Another project related to this idea is Poppea, a work as yet unfinished. It is a "deconstruction" of Monteverdi's L'Incoronzione de Poppea, where the original score is fragmented and overlaid with a derived music which exists near the extremes of the frequency range - very high and very low - a "meta-music" behind the formalised music of the Monteverdi original, the real passions behind the expressed passions, the atavistic subconscious hidden beneath "civilised" consciousness.

Perhaps these ideas are also present in Runes, a mixed media work which I developed in two versions, an audio-visual with slides and tape (1984), and a sound-image installation (1985). The images were of graffiti, photographed in various toilets throughout Wellington, and included rather graphic sexist and racist comments and imagery. In its new context the material became confrontational - scribblings made in secret but intended to be read by an "anonymous other", inarticulate messages and codes reflecting deep anxieties, intimate longings, fears, hatreds, often expressed with almost painful crudity, now exposed to a collective public gaze. What might have been considered offensive disfigurement of a public facility was transformed into a testament to social maladjustment and personal anguish.

Now the sub-text of a lot of what I have talked about up to this point is, patently, that obsession of adolescence, S-E-X. Its what makes the world go round, it's what keeps us going. It is also the source of a lot of the confusion we have about ourselves; it's something we often find very difficult to talk about truthfully. I like to try to shock my first year composition students by telling them that I believe that sex and creativity are inextricably linked, that sex is the source of generative, creative energy. (Of course any mother knows that this is a truth, but men often forget it.) As a schoolboy I had an insight when I found that when I was painting and things were going well, I often became sexually aroused.

As a university student, in my quest for "the meaning of life" I attended some meetings of the so-called "School of Philosophy", which propagated the teachings of the Russian philosopher/mystics Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. In my disillusionment with institutionalised Christianity was impressed by the expounding of "a perennial philosophy" which referred to a remarkably wide canon of human religious and mystical writing. I was told that if I wanted to find a higher truth, to see myself objectively, I had to learn non-attachment, the art of observing myself. But then, who is the "I" and who is "myself"? Perplexing questions......

By this time, I had come to believe that the need to create is generated by neurosis, in plain speech, by unhappiness, discontent, frustration. If I proceeded along this path to self-enlightenment I could see that I might loose the urge to create. That was not for me, I decided. I preferred to stay wallowing in the mire, wrestling in my state of imperfect self-knowledge, alternately indulging and trying to tame my ego. This is what living was all about!

But what about music? Could I be a composer? Was I simply in love with the romantic idea of being a composer? Why was I so fascinated by this when there were so few role models, when composition wasn't even a subject one could study at university. After all, I also had a talent for painting and one went to art school to learn how to do it properly. Painting I found easy, while my efforts at composing were painfully slow and difficult. And yet these were some of the reasons it attracted me - there were so few composers, it was such a complex and exacting art. Music, as sound, was so mysterious, ephemeral, intangible, its power to move so undefinable. I saw music as a wonderfully manipulative art, a kind of sexual substitute, seduction at a remove. I remember years ago hearing readings from Nijinsky's diary - his sense of utter fulfilment while performing, when he became the object of desire and adoration of an audience of thousands. Better than sex. And then I think of the poetry of Michelangelo and the insight it gives us into the mind of this melancholy man, who, by all accounts, was not physically attractive, but who was obsessed by male physical beauty, a beauty be was unable to possess, but which he had the power to recreate. Thank god for neuroses!

Call me a masochist if you like, but I also chose music because it is such hard work. It is a discipline. The perplexing barrier between musical idea and musical expression which notation presents is a source of both fascination and frustration. The creation of, say, five minutes of orchestral music may require a month's work. But I am convinced of an essential fact of life - the more labour invested, the greater the reward. One hears it in the early electronic works of a Stockhausen or a Berio. These pieces still have currency today, they still impress us. The limitations of the technology of the day meant that literally hundreds of hours were spent in cutting up pieces of magnetic tape to create an effect which today, with the use of computers, could be achieved in a matter of minutes. But somehow the labour and commitment invested in the creation of those works gives them a kind of innate integrity, which many more recent pieces simply do not seem to have.

And so composition, for me, is also a kind of mental, one might say, spiritual discipline. It is hard work. One of the most memorable moments in my travelling was to confront the temple complex at Ellora, Maharashtra, in India, and to register how these extraordinary buildings were created. Huge rock faces have been excavated to leave monumental structures which appear to have been constructed from the ground up. But it is not what has been placed there, it is what has been removed, which in terms of cubic material is much greater than what remains. It is "architecture in negative". As if the builders deliberately chose to make the task twice as difficult as it needed to be. The Caves of Ellora for piano and brass ensemble (1979) was my response to this experience.

We might be tempted to think of the arts as detached from everyday life. The artist, it has been suggested, "transcends" his/her immediate circumstances. Certainly politics would seem to have little to do with the arts. Or does it? Can an artist in contemporary society detach him/herself from the socio-political implications of his/her actions? I've always remembered the deliberately provocative statement of Hans Eisler, one of the composers who collaborated with Brecht - "Composers, irrespective of the purpose for which they believe they are producing music, must become aware of the social function for which their music is being used. If they free themselves of all the prejudices they will discover that regardless of their intentions, their music plays a great part in what only can be described as trade in narcotics."

I've long been an admirer of the American composer/pianist Frederic Rzewski. While his music is not necessarily always to my taste, I'm struck by the fact that almost all his compositions are in some way a critical comment on contemporary social issues. This is a man with a conscience, who uses his art to take a stand on such issues as social injustice, political exploitation, racial prejudice. I had the pleasure of meeting Frederic at the end of last year and hope that he might visit NZ some time in 2000; I feel that we composers are all too often unaware of composing being a political act, whether we like it or not. I was struck some years ago when I met a Swedish composer who confidently declared himself "very left wing", and fundamentally opposed to his government. I asked him how he lived as a composer, and he said, "Oh, I have a government stipend". He didn't regard himself compromised by this.....!

My own "social awakening" came with my sojourn in Java, 1976-77. In observing the many traditional functions of music in that culture, the way that music could reflect society on many levels, and provide a very real sense of social cohesion, I began to see my position as a composer within my own society as rather meaningless, self-obsessed, elitist, impotent, irrevelant, devoid of real meaning.

I meet and recorded street musicians who used music as a way of dignifying their need to beg for money. Many of them had natural musical talent far stronger than my own. Even for those with meagre musical talents, the circumstances of their performances often enhanced their music. I remember once recording a street musician in a cheap hotel in a small city in East Java. The boy played a tambourine as he sang. He was from the neighbouring island of Madura. His voice had a penetrating nasal quality, a sound that to Western ears would not be considered inherently "expressive". But as we sat together with few of the hotel workers, listening, suddenly one woman ran from the room. When I questioned her later she said that because she understood the language, she was moved to tears by the song in which the singer had created himself in which he told about the hardships of his life. She'd had left the room for fear of embarrassing herself.

I realised it was an act of fate that had allowed me to indulge my musical passions; that I had been born in New Zealand, that I had had access to a good education, etc, that I was born white-skinned, and by Indonesian standards, wealthy. I began to sense the burden of privilege, and to question the values which I had been brought up with, and whether I could continue with my view of musical composition as a meaningful and productive activity. Suddenly I felt my music needed to relate to the immediate circumstances around me. Recordings I made in Indonesia in 1977 became material for a whole series of electroacoustic pieces I worked on in subsequent years, compositions through which I wanted to acknowledge the music, musicians and culture which I had felt so privileged to have come in contact with. Among the pieces was Fanfares (1981), using the sounds of street hawkers selling toys and sweets to children, and Jangkrik Genggong (1981), a mélange of six different versions of the same cheery song as interpreted by street musicians and an amateur village gamelan. Another work, Arum Manis (1991), used the recording of an Indonesian, fiddle-playing seller of candy-floss mixed with the live performance of a string quartet. I was thrilled when this work was premiered by the Kronos Quartet at the Lincoln Centre. Here was a world famous ensemble playing what was in effect the "supporting role" to an anonymous Indonesian artisan, since the tape part was deliberately presented as foreground, and all the musical material was derived from the playing of the humble street hawker.

What about composition as overt protest, à la Frederic Rzewski. That is not really my style, though on at least one occasion I have taken what might be considered a provocative stance. In 1985 I was commissioned by the NZSO to compose a work to celebrate the 25th anniversary of television in New Zealand. Besides the concert work I also made a television programme for broadcast, using news clips. The work was Little Elegies, which, of course, hardly sounds celebratory! At the time I was shocked and greatly moved by the film about the Cambodian conflict, "The Killing Fields". (I also read the book though of course the film made a stronger impact). I asked myself what was the unique contribution that television had made to our culture. And the answer of course was the news, events worldwide, brought to us in our living rooms within hours, neatly packaged and presented as entertainment in the 6pm news slot. Human suffering, sufficiently sanitised so as not to put us off our food. Little Elegies was my response to the "gift" of television - these elegies could only be "little" because nothing I could say would suffice to match the parade of human suffering that we glimpse daily on our televisions. The response to my piece was muted, but I still thought it was more important to "say something truthful", rather than present my sponsors with a mere occasional piece.

Again in 1995 I wrote a piano piece, Sarajevo, in response to a film, this time Kusturica's "Underground", a sardonic view of the Bosnian war, tracing its roots back to the Second World War. The ironies were brutal, as the victims of yesterday become the villains of today. My piece is not a protest. It is more a fatalistic acceptance of the corruptibility of human nature, and the unending cycle of human violence into which we seem to have trapped ourselves.

And so to religion, although, in fact, politics and religion are sometimes difficult to extricate one from the other. While I was at University in Auckland I spent two years singing in Peter Godfrey's Cathedral choir - a marvellous musical education I will never regret - and another two years as a church organist and choirmaster. The tiresome cycle of Sunday sermons cured me forever of institutionalised religion. I couldn't bare the cosy, sanctimonious self-righteous of it all. I had the idea of mounting a kind of "guerrilla Mass", where the real, primitive symbolism of the text could be laid bare for all to see - a lamb slaughtered on the cathedral floor, during the Agnus Dei for instance. But, over the years, I have continued to set religious texts, and wonder if this could be read as hypocrisy on my part. Marvel not Joseph (1976), was one such work. It combines two mediaeval carols, one expressing Mary's devotional submissiveness, the other Joseph's bewilderment and suspicion concerning his fiancé's pregnancy. I thought the mediaeval poet had a point of view that was totally human, and a wonderful antidote to the improbable concept of a virgin birth. Likewise my offering for a St Cecilia Day concert in 1993, Wedding Song for Saint Cecilia. We all know that Cecilia is the patron Saint of music, but evidently this is a relatively modern assignation. She is known as a Roman martyr who refused sex with her husband on her wedding night. What a dreadful Miss Goody-good! And so I thought she should be "rehabilitated" as someone worthy of being the patron saint of music, that most sensuous of arts, and I found her a delicious, erotic text from the Songs of Solomon in which she could praise the beauty and desirability of her lover's body.

But aside from religion there are other spiritual aspects of music which we can consider, music, let us say, as a mystical experience. Last year I made the acquaintance of a remarkable Argentinian composer Alejandro Iglessias- Rossi, for whom composing is a sacred act. At first I mistook his religiosity as the heavy hand of Catholicism, but I soon discovered that his belief was much larger than this. He viewed the activity of composing as demanding the commitment, the devotion, the sense of responsibility to the art equal to that required of a priest. A subsuming of the self in something larger; in music, perhaps, a striving towards a state of Dyonesian ecstasy where the self ceases to exist. The composer as priest, or perhaps, better, shaman.

While I don't believe my own composition has ever attained this state, I have heard it in other performances. The folksinger Ji Zhengju, who performed in my opera Alley, sang with his whole body, his voice taken to the limits of what his slender frame could project. And I often hear this striving towards something beyond the self in the ecstatic vocal styles of the Middle East - Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan.

I have witnessed the hypnotic power of music. On one occasion I was recording a trance dance in a small village in Sumatra. The music was somewhat repetitive to my ears - I was more fascinated by the spectacle where the entranced dancers perform superhuman feats. But a man, sick in bed at some distance from the performance area heard the music and became entranced. His family panicked and ran in search of a dukun (a traditional doctor or soothsayer) to restore him to a normal state, since his heath was so fragile. And this from just the sound of the music.

I witnessed another type of trance performance at the 1981 South Pacific Arts Festival in Port Moresby - the Baining Fire Dance, in which near-naked participants wearing gigantic masks danced frenetically in complex rhythms through fire. The music possessed the dancers, and enabled them to execute extraordinary feats of endurance and physical co-ordination, oblivious to pain, such that a fully-conscious man would have been unable to do.

In Java one hears music at all times of the night: a puppet performance broadcast to the whole neighbourhood throughout the night - the music and story penetrates into the dreams of the whole community, uniting them in a mythical world where the cosmic forces struggle towards a resolution. Or the 4.20am call to prayer from half a dozen mosques within earshot, blending into a strange, serendipitous polyphony - I remember this particular sound, heard for the first time, as I lay at the edge of consciousness, still drugged by sleep, as seeming like the music of paradise, a music of beauty such that I could never find in ordinary existence.

This, then, concludes this my random collection of thoughts about the sex, politics and religion of music. Thank you for listening.


Afterword to Jack Body's 'Sex, Politics, Religion - And Music' by Robert Hoskins


Jack Body, composer, ethnomusicologist, teacher, music publisher, record producer, and photographer, born in Te Aroha and educated both here and Europe, is presently an associate professor at Victoria University. His extensive range of compositions includes solo, chamber and orchestral music, music for dance, theatre and film, and electroacoustic music. Jack Body became fascinated with Asian music after an overland journey in 1971 and his subsequent absorption of musical styles outside the Western classical tradition has given him the reputation of a composer who has greatly extended the resources of New Zealand music. Body is a composer of graphic richness and of extreme subtlety and sophistication. Suara: Environmental Music from Java (1978-90/1993), a tape-cycle, Sarajevo (1995) for piano, and Melodies for Orchestra (1983), for example, display technical complexities which establish him as one of our major contemporary artists. He is also noted for the unprecedented vividness with which, in such works as Love Sonnets of Michelangelo (1982), Pulse (1995), and Poems of Solitary Delights (1985), he expresses a sensuously apprehended world. In Turtle Time (1968), a threshold piece about death, the journey out of mortality into ghosthood is presently to be made: the mixture of salutation and farewell sounded in the manipulation of clock-like chimes and a somnambulant drift is the perfect equivalent for the balance between natural grief and the recognition of necessity which pervades Russell Haley's text. In Carol to Saint Stephen (1975), based on the medieval carol "Eya, Martyr Stephane", the reflexiveness of the form is the right correlative for the reflexiveness of the feeling. As the music proceeds, exhortation becomes self-lamentation; the angelic register of the dying martyr's blessing on those who stone him, collapses the distance between man's recognition of his own negative potential and a flash of beatitude which comes with the awareness of life in death and death in life. Jack Body's music never loses touch with the suffered world and it is the undermusic of just such knowledge that makes works like Little Elegies (1985) for orchestra - most known in form that underlays a visual track of news footage depicting atrocities and other "inhumanities" - the common, unrarified expression of a disappointment that is beyond self-pity. The state of things at the end of the opera Alley (1997), finds Rewi Alley an old man making no secret of the prejudice and contrariness at the centre of his nature, nor shirking the bleakness of that last place in himself. Even so, consolation can be found in the sensation of spirit not so much projected onward as brimming over and above the body.

Not all giant trees are broken by the storm
Not all seeds find no soil to strike root
Not all true feelings
Vanish in the desert of man's heart
Not all dreams allow their wings to be clipped
No, not everything ends as you foretold

Body's hybridised musical discourse, melding East and West, serves a purpose whereby each voice can unmask the other. A field recording of rice pounding music ("Kotekan"/Suara) can inform our hearing of, say the first of the Five Melodies (1982) for piano, and the penultimate movement of the cyclic Suara - an old man playing a bamboo jew's harp with choking oversounds ("Music Mulut" (1990)/Suara) - not only underscores the figure of age but prefigures the epilogue, a field recording of pigeons with whistles tied to their tails, winging home at sunset ("Sawangan"/Suara) - a sound which takes in and gives back the signals of a universal solitude.

Robert Hoskins, editor, Massey University Composer Address series